Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

I knew the minute I heard about this book, that it was a book for me, and I was so right. I love when that happens.

Susannah is a young journalist in New York City, working, hanging out with her boyfriend, and just going along with everyday life when she suddenly began to have psychotic symptoms and seizures. In a frighteningly short period of time she went from normal to hospitalized. In retrospect and thanks to research, she can see a few minor, subtle signs that something was wrong in the weeks leading up to her breakdown, but they're ones that no one would likely clue into at all.

Soon she is in the seizure ward of NYU, baffling doctors of all stripes, until finally a doctor comes along who is intrigued by the bizarre aspects of her illness instead of stymied, and comes up with a rare and only recently discovered syndrome. Finally there is a diagnosis and treatment. You know, simply from the fact that Susannah is writing the book, that she survives and gets her mind back, but there certainly are moments in the book when that outcome seems unlikely. And if she had gotten this syndrome just two years earlier, she would have had a much poorer outcome (many people with this syndrome who are untreated become permanently mentally handicapped if not psychotic, and some do die. A minority will recover.)

It is fascinating that for the month she is hospitalized, Susannah has no memories. And so, to write this book she had to interview her doctors, her parents, her boyfriend and friends. She had to watch the monitoring videos, read her parents' notes and journals, and try to reconstruct these events that were so foreign to her that they might have happened to someone else. While the book is told in first person, that part of the book does have the vague feeling of being outside of Susannah watching what is going on from the outside, not experiencing it from her eyes, which is disconcerting, but very appropriate.

Susannah does remember the recovery, which was long and tough. Her parents and boyfriend are all troupers. No one is completely overwhelmed and has a breakdown. In fact, her parents get along better than they ever have since the divorce, putting hurt and dislike behind them to join together for this battle for Susannah's sanity and life.

I whipped through this book in just two days. It's easy to read and hard to put down. A memoir with a medical mystery, insanity, and overcoming extreme obstacles is an easy sell to me, and luckily Ms. Cahalan has the writing chops so it reads smoothly and with emotion but not maudlin or filled with purple prose. It's terrible she had to go through this experience, but it's remarkable how well she came out of it and how the rest of us can now experience what that would be like through her eyes.

I borrowed this book from the library.

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